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Does Hypnosis Work for Pain Management?

Mind over matter…a phrase we’ve all heard before. It is typically interpreted to mean that we can use our mind to overcome a situation or even physical condition. For pain sufferers, does this mean that a technique such as hypnosis could help overcome the feeling of pain? 

Most of us have preconceived notions of hypnosis and primarily consider it a form of entertainment for the enjoyment of an audience rather than a medical technique. However, hypnosis for pain management has more validity than most people realize – and it may be effective for you.

Origins of hypnosis

Many would be surprised to learn that hypnosis goes back to the biblical age, with evidence of hypnosis dating as early as 1500 BC. During ancient times, mystical practices including “dream temples” and “hypnos” – used by the Egyptians and Greeks – were often a part of the treatment of physical ailments. Over the centuries, hypnosis came and went in various forms and was even used as anesthesia until chloroform began being used in 1831.

By the 20th century, Dr. Milton Erickson’s version of hypnosis was becoming more conventional accepted and used in clinical psychotherapy. Ericksonian hypnosis stressed the importance of the interactive therapeutic relationship and engagement of the patient, rather than a therapist issuing standardized instructions to a passive patient.

As Dr. Erickson was becoming known as world’s leading hypnotherapist, reports describing hypnotic strategies for chronic pain management emerged. In the 1950s, hypnosis reports and the release of biofeedback technology grew in tandem, with the next few decades bringing knowledge about the stress response and its effects on an individual’s physiology. Studies were conducted investigating the effectiveness of both tools in the treatment of chronic pelvic pain, headaches, lower back pain and other pain conditions.

Explaining hypnosis

By definition, hypnosis is a set of techniques designed to enhance concentration, minimize one’s usual distractions and heighten responsiveness to suggestions to alter one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior or physiological state. It not a treatment but rather a procedure that can be used to facilitate other types of therapies and treatments.

Hypnosis involves learning how to use your mind and thoughts to manage emotional distress, unpleasant physical symptoms such as pain and certain behaviors like smoking over overeating.

For pain therapists, hypnosis focuses on the relationship between the mind and body and is considered mainstream. For health professionals in other fields, they may be considered alternative or complementary therapies. Clinical, or medical hypnosis is an altered state of awareness used by licensed therapists to treat psychological or physical problems.

How does hypnosis work?

During hypnosis, the conscious part of the brain is temporarily tuned out as a participant focuses on relaxing and letting go of distracting thoughts. By making his/her mind more concentrated and focused, a participant is able to use it more powerfully. A good analogy is that it’s like using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful.

So, what is hypnosis like?

When under hypnosis, a person may experience physiologic changes. It’s common for their pulse and respiration to slow down and their alpha brain waves to increase. In this altered state, a person may become more open to specific suggestions and goals offered by the therapist, such as reducing pain. After this suggestion phase, the therapist reinforces continued use of the new behavior or mindset.

For everyone, the experience is a little different. Some people describe their experience as a “trance-like” state. Others may experience it as imagery or the soothing of body sensations. Most people describe hypnosis as pleasant, where they feel focused and absorbed in the experience. They tend to have an acute awareness, but also feel relaxed, comfortable and peaceful.

Hypnosis techniques for pain management

Hypnosis treatment for pain conditions typically consists of 4 stages:

  • Induction – to focus one’s attention
  • Deepening – to deepen one’s relaxation of the body
  • Suggestions – for changes in the client’s experience of pain
  • Debriefing – to go over what transpired

Beyond taking a participant through these common stages, a therapist may employ varying approaches. They may focus on changing the sensations from pain to something else or on shifting the patient’s attention away from the pain. When underlying dynamics, motivations or unresolved feelings are influencing pain, hypnosis can help the participant unconsciously explore these things and get some resolution for the underlying issues.

Another technique being used for decreasing the sensitivity to pain is hypnoanalgesia. The goal here is to use hypnosis in place of an analgesic in hospitals during surgery to reduce nausea, pain, vomiting and the length of hospital stay. What began as somewhat anecdotal, positive results for hypnoanalgesia has now been supplemented by well-controlled experiments.

Common myths about hypnosis

Hypnosis can’t do everything. There are many myths, misconceptions and misinformation about it – possibly even more than about any other treatment for chronic pain. People have preconceived notions based on stage performers, television and movies and rumors – and these cultural references tend to embellish what it can do.

Hypnosis cannot cure everything. It isn’t dangerous. Participants won’t be asked to do anything against their will. (refer to chart below for common myths and their truths)

Finally, medical hypnosis isn’t generally taught as part of the curriculum of most health care providers. Lack of knowledge of the subject area leads to “superstition”, even within the medical community.

Benefits for pain management

The good news is that research has shown medical hypnosis to be helpful for acute and chronic pain. In 1996, a panel of the National Institutes of Health found hypnosis to be effective in easing cancer pain. More recent studies have demonstrated its effectiveness for pain related to burns, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis and reduction of anxiety associated with surgery. In 2000, a meta-analysis, or study of 18 studies of hypnosis, showed that 75% of clinical and experimental participants with varying types of pain obtained substantial pain relief – supporting the claims of the effectiveness of hypnosis for pain management.

There is growing evidence and established research to suggest that hypnosis:

  • Has a greater influence on the effects of pain rather than the sensation of pain
  • May be more effective or at least equivalent to other treatments for acute and chronic pain
  • Have the potential to save both money and time for patients and clinicians, if the patient responds to hypnosis
  • May be able to provide analgesia, reduce stress, relieve anxiety, improve sleep, improve mood and reduce the need for opioids
  • Can enhance the efficacy of other well-established treatments for pain

[RELATED: A Patient’s Guide to Pain Management]

Good candidates for hypnosis

Some people are better suited to respond to hypnosis than others. And the degree to which people respond varies. There are researchers who believe that people need to possess a “hypnotic trait”, much like other individual traits, that make them more open to hypnotic suggestions. Others believe that all people start off with a sufficient ability to be hypnotized and achieve results and that hypnotic ability can be learned and enhanced through practice.

Hypnosis has been used successfully for people with a variety of pain conditions. The Arthritis Foundation has an entire page on its website dedicated to hypnosis for pain relief of arthritis. Other medical conditions commonly cited as being improved with hypnosis include:

  • Headaches
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Cancer
  • Burns
  • Back pain

The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis cites many other illnesses that would make someone a good candidate. Aside from these conditions, many in the field believe that the reality is that candidates with just about any type of chronic or acute pain could see a positive outcome from hypnosis.

Getting started with hypnosis

Once a person has decided to try hypnosis, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis offers some insights into choosing the right provider. As well, the Societies of Hypnosis provides of list of members in several accredited organizations that the user can search to find a provider based on location, specialty or certification. It’s important to make sure that whichever provider is chosen, the therapist is licensed and has the appropriate certifications.

In addition to meeting with a provider, people interested in the ongoing use of hypnosis may opt to be trained in self-hypnosis. Outside of the treatment setting, participants can learn to practice self-hypnosis or be given audio recordings of their therapy sessions to help with home practice.

And technology can also aid in approaching hypnosis from more of a DIY standpoint. There are several downloadable programs and mobile apps on the market that are designed to help the participant with self-hypnosis, including:

Final thoughts

Does hypnosis work for pain relief? There is a great deal written about its use and much research into its efficacy. Although not quite mainstream yet, there does seem to be a growing acceptance of hypnosis and a willingness of some medical providers to explore this option with their patients. While not a cure, it may be a pain management tool that could work for you.

If you’ve ever used hypnosis for pain management, share your experience in the comments below.

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.

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